Locke should be top rookie

IROQUOIS FALLS - The Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League has announced its award recipients for the 2013-14 season.

It is a list dominated by Soo Thunderbirds, as one might expect given the team’s impressive record during the regular season.

Unlike the all-star selections we discussed in this space on Tuesday, I have fewer bones to pick with league officials over the choices they have made here, with one notable exception.

We will get to that one a little later, however.

Following are the 2013-14 award winners:

• Carlo Cattarello Trophy (NOJHL MVP) — Joel Horodziejczyk (Thunderbirds).

As I discussed in an earlier column there were plenty of worthy candidates for this award, but none more deserving than Horodziejczyk.

Statistically (29-2-1, 1.72 goal against average, .935 save percentage, 4 shutouts) he is by far the best goalie in the NOJHL.

And he ranks among the Top 5 goalies in the Canadian Junior Hockey League in most categories.

Horodziejczyk is one of the big reasons the Thunderbirds have been at, or near the top of the CJHL rankings all season.

You never see him get rattled, or lose his confidence and focus.

Horodziejczyk makes all the saves you would expect him to and many you might think beyond the realm of possible.

There has been no better goalie in the NOJHL over the past two seasons.

And the Sudbury native, who turned 19 in January, has two years of junior eligibility left — great news for Thunderbirds fans.

• NOJHL Trophy (Best Overall Team Player) — Gavin Burbach (Thunderbirds).

After leading the NOJHL in points (87) and goals (48) you could argue that he and not Horodziejczyk should have won the Carlo Cattarello Trophy.

I am confident, however, that if you were to ask Burbach who was more deserving, he would give the nod to Horodziejczyk.

That is one of the things that make him such a great captain and a worthy recipient of the NOJHL Trophy.

To say that Burbach was a big part of the Thunderbirds offence this season would be a gross understatement.

After all, he scored 20% of his club’s goals during the 2013-14 campaign.

Playing with a gifted offensive player like Darcy Haines has helped, but Burbach was putting up big numbers while Haines was still playing for the Pembroke Lumber Kings during the early part of the season.

Offence isn’t Burbach’s only strength, as you would be hard-pressed to find a better all-around, or harder-working hockey player.

• NOJHL Trophy (Best Defenceman) — Tyler Jones (Thunderbirds).

If I had been making this selection it would have been a coin flip between Jones and Kirkland Lake blue liner Dan Morin, captain of the Gold Miners.

So, I can’t really argue with the choice of Jones.

Of the two, Jones certainly has more offensive upside.

A look at his stats (10-29-39) shows just how much Jones contributed to the Thunderbirds attack this season.

And the Thunderbirds’ already-impressive record is even better in games when Jones contributes a point.

Four of his 10 goals, by the way, were of the game-winning variety.

Jones wasn’t just a force on the Thunderbirds’ power play, either.

He was solid in his own zone and very effective at moving the puck quickly.

Despite being 6-2 and 195 pounds, Jones didn’t spend too much time in the penalty box.

• John Grignon Trophy (Rookie of the Year) — Owen Headrick (Thunderbirds).

Headrick is an outstanding young defenceman and any team in the NOJHL would be pleased to have him in their lineup, but this award should have gone to Abitibi Eskimos 16-year-old centre Brenden Locke.

Locke (56, 27-28-55, 10) averaged almost a point a game while playing much of the season on the Eskimos second and third lines.

Take away his first four games in the league when he was held pointless and he put up 55 points in 52 games — not bad when you are playing in the shadow of stars like Brady Clouthier and Erik Robichaud.

By the way, it was Locke, not Clouthier or Robichaud who led the Eskimos with seven power-play goals.

And Locke had a habit of coming up big in big games, such as the Eskimos 9-6 win over the Espanola Rivermen on March 1 when third place was still on the line.

Unlike many young players who break into the NOJHL, Locke was solid in the Eskimos defensive zone as well, one of the reasons the coaching staff often opted to have him on the ice during the final minutes of hockey games.

I suppose you could make an argument that defence is a harder position to play in your rookie season and Headrick, like Locke, was only 16 years old this season.

Like his fellow D-man Jones, when Headrick (56, 8-23-31, 10) contributed to the offence the Thunderbirds were hard to beat — 22-0-0-1.

• Mitch Tetreault Memorial Trophy (Top Defensive Forward) — Brad Edwards (Rivermen).

The captain of the Espanola Rivermen is an excellent all-around hockey player and a worthy choice for this award.

Edwards played for the North Bay Trappers during the 2012-13 season and was a big part of the team’s drive to the Dudley Hewitt Cup.

A season-ending broken leg unfortunately ended the campaign prematurely for the 20-year-old Napanee native.

After making the move to Espanola with the franchise this season, Edwards has come back strong.

On a squad that features snipers Brennen Dubchak, Corbin Bean and Brandon Janke, Edwards has put his heart and soul into a checking role.

That hasn’t kept him from chipping in on offence from time to time, however, as his stats (41, 12-17-29, 35) would indicate.

Edwards is one of the best two-way players in the NOJHL.

• Gilles Laperriere Trophy (Most Improved Player) — Khadyn Butterfly (Nickel Barons).

It is hard to watch Khadyn Butterfly play and not become a fan of his game.

The Moosenee native is big (6-2, 185 pounds), skates well and has soft hands.

What’s not to like?

Butterfly never seems to panic and plays under control, even when opponents turn up the intensity of the forecheck.

The defenceman had a solid 2013-14 campaign (54, 10-20-30, 62) with the Nickel Barons and he is only going to get better.

Butterfly won’t turn 19 until August and he has two more years of junior eligibility.

• Onaping Falls Huskies Trophy (Most Gentlemanly Player) — Brett Wagner (Bobcats/Crunch).

Wow, there is a name from the past. The Onaping Falls Huskies were already history when I moved to Timmins for the first time back in 1991, but I can recall mention of the name from time to time over the years.

I had to double check the stats twice before I realized Wagner took just two minor penalties this season with the Bobcats/Crunch.

That is pretty amazing for a 56-game season in which the right winger played every game.

It is even more amazing when you consider Wagner (56, 41-33-74, 4) was the Bobcats/Crunch leading scorer and surely drew lots of attention from opponents every time he skated across the offensive blue line.

Wagner, by the way, led the NOJHL in short-handed goals this season, with nine, nearly double the five recorded by Bean and Dubchak.

• Red McCarthy Memorial Trophy (Coach of the Year) — Jordan Smith (Thunderbirds).

No surprise here.

After being named to the NOJHL’s first all-star team, it is a no-brainer that Smith gets the nod for the Red McCarthy Memorial Trophy.

In fact, if his team turns in a few more seasons like they did in 2013-14, NOJHL officials might have to start giving serious consideration to renaming the trophy in his honour.

Just kidding.

The league would never think of disrespecting McCarthy in such a way, nor would we seriously suggest they should.

Smith is the clear choice for this award based not only on the Thunderbirds’ record, but also upon how well they play the game.

You would be hard-pressed to find a team in recent NOJHL history that had better balance than this year’s Thunderbirds.

• Joe Drago Trophy (Director of the Year) — Kevin Cain (Thunderbirds).

While Smith shaped the Thunderbirds on the ice into the powerhouse they have become, it was Cain who gave him the players with which to work.

And, just as importantly, it was Cain who hired Smith to be head coach of the team.

The Thunderbirds franchise is the envy of Junior ‘A’ hockey operations across this country and not just because they ended the season as the top ranked team in the CJHL.

• James Aspen Trophy (Regular Season Champions) — Soo Thunderbirds.

Enough said!